Why Men Don't Seek Help

Men don’t ask for directions or so the stereotype goes and there is an element of truth to it: men don’t seek help.

Don’t believe me? Alright, when was the last time you went to see you GP? If you are a man there is a 1 in 7 chance that it will be over 3 years ago according to a survey by Nuffield Health. The same survey found that almost half of men would wait a few weeks before seeing a GP about a concern just in case it clears up on its own. A full quarter of guys surveyed had a health concern that they hadn’t talked to a GP about.

The result of this can be seen in the life expectancy figures – in the UK a man can expect to see 79 years a woman can expect an additional 4 years at 83. How much of this gap will be due men not seeking help is difficult of say but Paul Galdas and others writing in The Journal of Advanced Nursing have put forward the argument that a reluctance to seek help is the principle health related issue for men in the UK. The same is seen throughout the western world to the point where simply being male makes an early death more likely.

What causes men to seek help less often is complex but it boils down to the modern construction of masculinity that is what we think counts as a “real man” these days. Basically we as a society have been telling boys and then men that to count themselves as masculine we need to be stoic and independent with repressed emotions. Failure to live up to these aspirations undermines a bloke’s masculinity and brings question to his gender, as if it were something that could be taken away.

It’s an odd bit of logic but you can see it played out in every facet of our society. Knocked to the floor in a sports game? A “real man” would get right back up. Need to work late? A “real man” will just sleep less. Trouble in a relationship? A “real man” goes to the pub and drinks a bottle of whiskey. What a real man never seems to do is seek help.

So it makes sense that a group of Scottish men said that men should feel reluctant to seek help when asked as to do otherwise just isn’t manly. The same attitude can be seen played out from the top to the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder but men towards the bottom seem to have a harder time seeking help. Black men are more likely to die of HIV in the US despite the condition being manageable with medication these days.

Given that this idea of masculinity is killing men it seems strange that little has been done about it, the blame is often placed on the individual man rather than the societal expectations and pressures that we place on him. We have been blaming men rather than giving help and in doing so we have shortened the lives of many.

In order to understand how we can get men to seek help it might be useful to look at when they are more likely to seek help already.

Men tend to be indirect asking friends and family for advice before seeking professional help which is part of the reason why men with wives live longer. Encouraging men to be open about their problems and to look towards professional help more readily would have the added benefit of them reinforcing these ideas when they seek advice from each other.

Men also like to get help in a reciprocal fashion; we like to help people who help us. Not having the opportunity to do with the local GP discourages men from seeking help. This might help explain why spaces like men’s sheds are doing so well. They don’t come with overt healthcare packaging and offer the men attending a chance to help each other out.

Men are also more willing to seek help when the cost to their manliness of seeking help is outweighed by the cost of not doing so. The Scottish men mentioned earlier were more likely to seek help if their work life or sex life were threatened. Attempts to reduce the perceived manliness cost of seeking help should elevate the amount of conditions that men are willing to seek help for.

Finally men are more likely to seek help if they see what they are going through is as normal. A broken leg is a normal condition to suffer from – particularly if suffered in some manly pursuit. Unseen issues like erectile dysfunction or  depression aren’t seen as normal so men don’t want to not only put there masculinity on the line by asking for help but also show that they are suffering from something they see as abnormal. Normalising these health conditions is a great opportunity to help men come forward and get the help and support they need.

Men don’t seek help but it’s not acceptable to put the blame on them and look the other way when we die younger than we should. Yes we as men need to be more open to seeking help but we as a society need to be more welcoming of men seeking help and give them more avenues where they feel comfortable in doing so.

Photo by Johnathan Nightingale originally found on Flickr used under creative commons licence.